Music Modernization Act, Artificial Intelligence, and Cryptocurrency

“Angel Pumping Gas” is not a song about copyright regulatory policy, artificial intelligence, or cryptocurrency. I’m going to use it to round up all three of those subjects in this blog post.

  1. Music Modernization Act: Not Enough Of a Good Thing

“Why won’t this moment last?”

A.

“Angel Pumping Gas” is a 1999 song by the band Lindsey Pool, the second track on the album Postal. The song was circulated around various music sharing sites and services—but it was erroneously attributed to the band The Postal Service. Even now, comments sections on YouTube express surprise concerning the song’s artist. Google’s first result for lyrics attributes the song to The Postal Service. This serves as a clear, simple example of how easily information spreads online, and how difficult it can be to correct information online. If early 2000’s music sharing used a single database held the information for every published song, such an error might have never happened. A new law requires the creation of such a database, but there’s a lot still up in the air.

The biggest open question from the Music Modernization Act is: Who is going to create and maintain the required database of songs and rights holders? The law mentions that a database will be made, presumably by the Mechanical Licensing Collective that the law also creates. This is only forces everyone to ask more questions: who will be on the board of the Mechanical Licensing Collective? What methods will this organization use to create this database?

B.

Measured by content, “Angel Pumping Gas” is little more than an unnecessarily detailed recounting of purchasing gasoline. In fact, the middle two-thirds of the song is an entirely banal description of an entirely ordinary and unremarkable transaction. Only the beginning and ending of the song (and chorus) frame the experience in terms of the romance and desire that the singer feels. It’s either beautiful post-modern appreciation of the beauty in the mundane encounters of our lives, or it’s just a little bit silly.

The Music Modernization Act is either a beautiful resolution of a pressing problem in the music industry, or it’s just a little bit too narrow to be worth caring about. The Music Modernization Act was passed unanimously by the House. Sound Exchange and the RIAA have praised it. It seems like everyone loves it, so I was surprised to learn how narrowly tailored the new law is. It is almost entirely focused on problems specific to digital streaming of music. Though there were issues that required resolution in this area, there remain enormous gaps between current copyright law and the daily use of media and technology. It is unsurprising that the problem that got addressed was one that concerned the rich and powerful (record labels, digital platforms), but they did take the opportunity to include studio professionals in the legislation—a group that has historically be neglected. Music Modernization Act is not as far behind the times as I expected: it’s not a response to Napster, it’s a response to Spotify… but I would still like a more satisfying response to Napster than the DMCA.

 

  1. Artificial Intelligence All Around Us– And We Don’t Know What It’s Doing

“You ask ‘What Can I do?’ I say ‘unleaded fuel.’ You open up my tank and start the pump.”

“Angel Pumping Gas” is a wistful ballad that describes a brief meeting with a filling station attendant, with whom the singer is immediately infatuated. Filling station attendants are rare in 48 of the 50 states (NJ and OR have laws against filling one’s own gas tank… as does the town of Huntington, NY).  The entire premise for the song is slightly alien to the tens of millions of Americans who have always pumped their own gasoline.

For most young Americans in the 90s, gas station attendants were a historical curiosity—something referenced in films in the 50s and 60s. However, for residents of NJ and OR, having someone else fuel your car was a commonplace occurrence. Today’s emerging technologies have the same impact: a device or service is either a commonplace part of your life, or it’s a foreign concept. Twitter, Facebook, Alexa, Smartphone GPS navigation, Netflix, Twitch, YouTube, AmazonPrime- all of these things are, for most Americans, either so commonplace as to be unremarkable, or are simply not part of your life. As technology becomes more integrated in our lives, the difference between so-called “haves” and “have-nots” becomes more pronounced. The very premise of the song creates a divide in the audience: there those who have encountered a filling station attendant, and those who have not.

Our relationship with technology is already creating visible divides in our population. We aren’t always sure who is a bot, though some of us are willing to pay a lot for their art. Even as AI becomes an essential tool for the largest companies that manage important aspects of our lives, the law has no idea how it will handle the legal aspects of a tool that is on a complicated trajectory. Artificial intelligence is steadily becoming more and more commonplace- but the majority of us can’t see how or where AI is being used, much less which systems use what kind of data. Like a teen in the 90’s listening to a song about a filling station attendant, most people who hear about bots and AI have to turn to movies and pop culture references to draw up a mental picture, rather than rely on our own experiences.

 

  1. Cryptocurrency’s Perpetual Hype

“You walk over my way, I didn’t know what to say… I think that I love you, or maybe it’s just the fumes.”

The song details the singer’s desire and longing, wallowing in the idea of feeling a romantic desire for someone he doesn’t know. The song juxtaposes the intensity of the singer’s amorous emotions with the brevity and shallowness of the interaction. Our popular culture mirrors this adolescent infatuation in our reactions to new technologies: sudden, intense waves of excited fervor for a world-changing device or platform that either never arrives or seems to evaporate into the past shortly after it appears. (I have written before about the hype surrounding the Internet of Things… )

Cryptocurrency prices are down, but it doesn’t feel like the hype has suffered at all. The estate of one of the Wu-Tang Clan is starting a cryptocurrency, to be named after the deceased: Dirty Coin. The strangest part of this is that I haven’t seen blockchain applied in the kinds of contexts I expected it to find more success: online games, a new kind of customer loyalty program, or other gimmicky, comparatively low-stakes settings. Perhaps the hype is fueled by risk-taking and gambling, and such settings aren’t thrilling enough. This is unfortunate, because turning down the hype would allow the technology to actually move forward in much more appropriate, smaller steps, rather than trying to change the world all at once.

Is the gas station attendant in the song the destined One True Love of the singer? It’s not impossible. Are there are a lot of fumes around gas stations? In my experience, yes- always, in fact. Will cryptocurrencies bring about a Utopian future? It’s not impossible. Do crowds tend to favor exciting hype over careful, substantive analysis? In my experience, yes- always, in fact.

Conclusion

“We share our precious moment in a glance…  and as I drive away, her memory’s here to stay—her deep blue eyes have left me in a trance.”

The singer bemoans that he needs to leave, as the road calls him away. His lack of control is an unstated axiom of the logic that he must follow. The singer is a passive pawn of forces around him: fate, the road, filling station attendant (her authority to invoke payment and her beauty), the transaction, his emotions. He begins the song by attributing the encounter to fate and concludes with the resigned acceptance that the separation is, perhaps, better for all involved. This is not a song about a person taking decisive actions; this is a song about a consumer making his way through a brief and common transaction in the life of a middle-American.

Society seems to display about as much mindfulness and self-possession in approaching technology. We owe it to ourselves to take more effort and more thought regarding our laws and our technology than an adolescent’s unapproached crush.

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Blocks and Chains: Secure, Stable, and Not Flexible

Lynes with Rules: How Blockchain Works

Lyne is a minimalist puzzle game in which you must connect a sequence of shapes with a single, contiguous line. Certain rules govern what lines may do, (e.g., only triangles on this line), and where lines may go (e.g., lines may not intersect or pass through one another), with increasingly elaborate additions and variations on these rules as the game progresses and difficulty increases. This general concept of a line that “knows” which nodes it already has connected and which nodes are permissible is a good introductory way to think about blockchain technology.

Blockchain is the data structure used by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, like Dash. The general idea is a bit like the game Lyne: the line is like the ledger of transactions, and the nodes are customers and their transactions. Everyone who wants to be on the line can look back to make sure the line has obeyed the rules and there are no mistakes or problems with the other nodes on the line. Just as in the game Lyne, the line will not allow a square to get on a triangle-only line, blockchain will not allow an improper transaction.

Blockchain touts two distinct features: 1) an open (“public”) ledger (prevents bad checks and double-spending), and 2) a distributed database (prevents tampering with the ledger). The effect is a secure and trustworthy system for conducting and recording transactions. As with all advances in technology, it is important to consider what is lost in the past by the adoption of the new.

 

Let it Float, Hope It Doesn’t Bounce: How Check Kiting Works

In the time of The Great Before, when humans stumbled about blindly beneath incandescent bulbs and smeared ink on slices of dead trees, there was a method of financial transaction called “writing a check,” which one did from one’s “checkbook,” using a device that was something like a stylus that leaked. By creating these checks, one person could give permission to another person to go to a bank ask for some money from the check-writer’s account.

There was a way to turn these checks into something like a credit card, using a technique called “check-kiting.” Sometimes, the check-writer could give a special instruction during the transaction: “Hey, I can write you this check, but there won’t be enough funds in my account to cover it until 3 days from now. Can you just wait until then to cash it?” Under favourable circumstances (good faith, trust, friendship, etc.), an off-the-record agreement was reached to add additional wait-time to the check-cashing process in order to allow funding to appear in the checking account. This allowed the transaction to proceed, even though funding was not available to cover the transaction.

Another term for this method was “playing the float.” “The float” refers to money that is not yet moved from one account to another, but has been promised to be moved: If a check for $10 is written but not yet cashed, that $10 is still in the first account, but it is expected to appear in the recipient’s account… well, “sometime soon.” Financers, accountants, bankers, regulators, and economists disagree about how to conceptualize, discuss, and manage “float.”

It’s not surprising that float is decreasing in total amount in the face of digital technology. One of the reasons it ever existed was the sheer amount of time it takes for humans to physically process checks. PayPal can digitally send instructions and records around the world much faster than the US Postal Service can physically transport a check from NYC to LA, or even just down the street. The passage of the Check21 law allowed banks to use images of checks in place of the physical copies, which is why your ATM just scans your check now instead of collecting it for a teller to physically process.

Will Large Institutions like Blockchain?

Whether you like blockchain depends on your goals and priorities. This protocol makes it harder to do off-the-record stuff—like asking someone not to cash a check until payday. You could include a separate set of instructions with a transaction that doesn’t go into the blockchain, but sending those instructions separately means missing out on the benefits of blockchain.

It also seems that blockchain would effectively obliterate float, because the transactions are completed and closed-out almost instantly, if not by close of business each day. There might be a way to work float into the blockchain, but it seems almost counter-productive—unless float is very important to you.

Some enthusiasts suppose that blockchain would diminish the need for banks and lawyers. I think it is more accurate to say that the widespread use of blockchain (if its use ever becomes widespread) could change the role such intermediaries play in transactions. For one thing, blockchains require enormous computing power to maintain. Blockchains are essentially nested hashchains, and rely on increasingly complex hashing to ensure their security. Bitcoin’s blockchain now requires supercomputer-level power to mine, for example- and compared to a ledger of a large bank like Citibank or Bank of America, Bitcoin grew slowly and remains tiny.

Additionally, financial professionals are helpful for navigating and orchestrating complex, multi-party, and exceptional transactions. The majority of transactions are simple and similar enough for a program to handle- however, it would be difficult and inefficient to create a program capable of processing rare and difficult transactions. Trained professionals would be useful, at the very least, for handling exceptional cases that do not fit the mold required by blockchain.